BP, Big Fossil and the greenwashing game

by Hazaar the Bazaar

We received a ‘wake up’ call last week from our beloved friends at BP. They urged us to reduce our emissions because it’s clear we’re the problem. Let’s dig a bit deeper into BP’s history of greenwashing and why Big Fossil’s capitalist hypocrisy is toxic to the climate solution. 

Welcome to the 21st century, where fossil fuel giants are offering up 20th-century solutions to our era’s greatest peril. BP sent this tweet out a week ago:

bp carbon footprint calculator

The link leads to a strange website full of bicycle doodles and condescending questions about your lifestyle: how many times a week do you eat meat? You asshole. Do you drive? Take the bloody bus! Did you fly across the country for your grandmother’s funeral? Thanks a lot, individual. You’re the reason we’re all going to burn.

The timing is perfect and almost hilarious. Not even three weeks ago the Climate Accountability Institute released an analysis that held just 20 companies responsible for one-third of global carbon emissions since 1965. BP was listed with flying colours. They even joined an ‘elite’ group of four major investor-owned companies that have attributed to ten per cent of all emissions in the same period. Let that sink in. No matter what result you scored on BP’s out of touch quiz, your long showers and road trips have nothing on them.

So what planet is BP’s marketing team on? Unfortunately, this one. Greenwashing certainly isn’t new for the team – in fact, the fossil fuel giant has a long track record of deceiving the public and using fraudulent marketing to fake eco-responsibility. Greenpeace has been covering their greenwashing tactics extensively for over a decade now and even awarded them an ‘Emerald Paintbrush’ trophy in 2009 in recognition of wholeheartedly trying to pull the wool over our eyes.

It was received in recognition of their 2008 marketing campaign, which loudly made a pledge to alternative energy. It turned out to be nothing but a hyped-up jumble of sexy ‘eco’ words with false data. Greenpeace crunched the numbers that they reported and found investments did not match their public relations statements in the slightest.

In 2009, after their previous marketing failure, BP admitted they were never committed to alternative energy at all and were now trying to align with being ‘responsible’ rather than ‘green’.

The real shit storm brewed in 2010, with the notorious Deepwater Horizon oil spill. It’s considered the largest oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry, discharging a gobsmacking 4.9 million barrels within a six month period before it was sealed.

Reports from 2012 confirmed that the site was still leaking through and in 2015 BP pleaded guilty for lying to Congress about how much oil had actually been discharged. Later, BP went on to spend more than $500 million on rebranding their image and all was okay. Confused? Let’s talk about a case study on exactly how greenwashing worked for BP.

A study on BP’s post-spill greenwashing 

Marketing is simply psychology, and greenwashing is just a slimy tactic. It works because nobody actually fact checks what they’re fed, right? They’ve got us right where they want us.

A study by the National Bureau of Research found that greenwashing was extremely effective for BP post-spill.Great news for them, confusing news for the rest of us.

Here are three keynotes from the study:

1. Consumers did punish BP – but only very temporarily

Initially, BP saw a 3.6% decline in sales, but it bounced right back up only four months later. Researchers suggest this means consumers generally punish bad behaviour rather than update their beliefs about a company and demand reform.

2. Environmentally conscious people punished BP more, and the rich punished them less

This is an interesting one – the researchers created a measure of environmentalism in a given geographical area based on things like hybrid registrations and donations to the Green Party. They found that ‘punishment was significantly more intense in greener areas’. But here’s the catch: higher-income areas are usually more environmentally friendly anyway, so the results leave us with only a murky version of the truth.

3. The more money BP spent advertising in a particular location pre-spill, the less they were punished in that area

This also included advertising that ran through the spill. This finding was reflected in both consumers use of the pump and station affiliations (whether a station changed brands in response to the spill – BP lost stations, but this was less common in areas with high advertising.)

How far back does this greenwashing go?

Well, the oldest glimpse of digital BP greenwashing I can find with a simple Google search comes from Corpwatch in December of 2000. The article is titled BP: Beyond Petroleum or Beyond Preposterous? and delves deep into their multi-million dollar marketing campaign ‘Beyond Petroleum’. It goes far, far deeper than that though.

beyond petroleum

Big Oil has been informed on their role in climate breakdown for over 50 years

According to a detailed accountability timeline The Guardian released earlier this month, oil giants have been in the know for over 50 years. In 1959 at American oil’s hundredth birthday celebration, physicist Edward Teller spoke onstage of the looming disasters ahead. How did the industry respond? They swept it under the rug. 

edward teller physicist climate change big oil
Edward Teller wondering why Big Oil won’t listen to him.

Again, in 1968 the API quietly commissioned the Stanford Research Institute and received a direct warning on the industries’ irresponsible game with carbon dioxide.

Here are a few more of my favourite bits of the timeline:

1970 bp
Source: The Guardian
1981 bp the guardian
Source: The Guardian
1988 bp
Source: The Guardian

It’s safe to say Big Fossil has been aware of this for a very long time.

So how do they get away with this?

Well, that’s complex. What happens when capitalist assholes run an industry and we little humans ‘need’ something consistently from that industry? We’re going to let things slide and come crawling back. It doesn’t matter which company we choose to fuel up with – it’s all evil and part of the problem. It’s not as if we can even easily boycott. Even if you don’t drive, public transport relies on the success of oil giants. Even cycling to work isn’t helping much but your health. It’s a bandaid solution to a major problem that lies in the scaffold of our society.

Paired with greenwashing, the key focus in a hypocritical capitalist corporation is shifting the blame to consumers. Mass media wanted to help their big corporation friends out, so when the news became digital, they latched onto the rhetoric and held on tight. The New York Times asked you about your meat-eating habits all the way back in 2010, which makes it clear that the big guy was always one slimy step ahead of us all (until now). Shifting the blame to fall at our feet is extremely convenient for corporations because it takes the spotlight off their sins.

The belief that individual choices are the solution to climate breakdown is dangerous. Our actions are judged microscopically by each other and we’re convicted if we can’t hold up our ethics.  It’s perfect for BP and friends because you’re now distracted by your individual habits and the habits of your friends and the habits of your followers on Instagram.

Fossil fuel giants are being let off the hook because you’re distracted by your own eco shortcomings.

The numbers are crunched, and the fake news is out: changing our consumer habits cannot and will not fix this mess alone. It’s impossible – it’s not a prediction, it’s simple math.

While BP is screaming and shouting about your carbon footprint, theirs has grown. They’re still blaming that on us though. BP released their 2019 Statistical Review of World Energy report earlier this year suggesting ‘it’s clear we’re on an unstable path with carbon emission rising at their fastest rate since 2011’.

According to the doozy of a report, greenhouse gas emissions caused by burning fossil fuels rose by 2 per cent in the previous year. An abnormal increase in both hot and cold days around the world saw consumers plugging into power more and more. but it’s extremely ironic, considering it’s their fault. They still got creative and found a way to pin it on us though.


InfluenceMap reported BP also has the highest annual expenditure on lobbying against climate change, at $53 million. So while you’re being fed the idea they’re green thanks to basic psychology and colour schemes, they’re quite literally buying themselves more time and stealing ours.

bp lobbying
Source: InfluenceMap

So what’s next for Big Fossil and BP?

Reuters has reported the BP plans to reduce CO2 emissions by 3.5 million tonnes by 2025, and invest up to $500 million per year on renewable energies. I don’t know about you, but I’ll believe it when I see it. 

While BP is still bluffing, it seems ExxonMobil is wearing their heart on their sleeves. They have disastrous plans to pump 25% more oil and gas in 2025 – which means they’re likely to singlehandedly throw us off our intended trajectory issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

When the IPCC report made the rounds on mass media and social media last year, a very vital figure was left out of the conversation. Oil and gas production needs to fall by 20% by 2030, and 55% by 2050. As of now, any modest growth spells trouble, but for ExxonMobil? What they’re doing is lethal. The self-interest of the fossil fuel industry is deliberately sabotaging our planet for paper and power.

What’s next for us?

Radical action and rebellion. Right now, capitalism itself is being challenged, but perhaps we need to shift our focus to fossil fuel companies and banks. We need to follow the paper trail and take down the puppeteers, not the puppets.

While you might feel small, your voice is big. The only way to get through to Big Fossil is through those we elect. Stay informed, inform those around you and demand politicians focus on climate justice. It’s not an option anymore.

Bill McKibben, a prominent US environmentalist told The Guardian’s Owen Jones “We have the tech we need. The work of engineers over the last decade in lowering the costs of solar and wind panels is quite remarkable. We can do what we need to do, or much of it. The problem that remains is fighting the political power of the fossil fuel industries. If we can do that, we can proceed quickly.”

That reckoning is beginning. This month, ExxonMobil is on trial for misleading investors on their environmental regulations. If they’re taken down, this could be a historical legal showdown and set the precedent we all really need.

We have things in motion; we just need to keep screaming. It’s beginning to unravel, slowly but surely.

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